Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – More on John Dewey
September 19, 2012 3 Comments
A guest blog by Alison Iredale, Senior Lecturer at Oldham College
I am grateful for Ann’s previous post on John Dewey’s influence on learning (https://annwalkerwea.wordpress.com/2012/08/29/educational-thinkers-hall-of-fame-john-dewey/).
In this post I want to offer a personal perspective related to his work on democracy and education. Some of this post appears in an article about Routinised Practices, part of my PhD thesis.
While researching Dewey at the start of my doctoral studies about 4 years ago I came across an address by Richard Pring, the soon to be retired Director of the Oxford Department of Educational Studies, to an Escalate conference in Glasgow in 2003. He recalled being blamed by Keith Joseph for the low standards in schools, due to teachers being introduced to the works of John Dewey in his department. Having just been knocked sideways professionally by Dewey’s writing myself after 20 years in vocational training and teaching I felt vindicated by my unease with the growth of standards driven education policy and processes in college based vocational education. I wondered whether the standards that Sir Keith Joseph said were falling were long in dire need of a good push. This went against all my training as a vocational teacher hitherto, where the discourse of standards and criteria dominated my teaching and my CPD.
As a teacher and trainer slurping the alphabet soup of CPVE, YTS, NVQ, GNVQ and BEC in the 80’s and 90’s I failed to question the underlying inequalities of narrowly focused quasi-skills criteria, preferring the certainties of the well constructed and cross referenced NVQ portfolio ‘owned’ by the candidate and ‘signed off’ by the internal verifier. Dewey, a pragmatist just like me, revealed that education was part of the democratic ideal, an imperative, and fundamental to the growth of an individual and society. I thought that I already endeavoured to promote transformative learning by taking risks in my lessons, introducing my students to collaborative working, new technology, and experts from the ‘real world of work’. Yet I was doing this generally within a confident, safe, collaborative, democratic, and supportive environment back then. Now, as a teacher educator I observe my own developing teachers basing their pragmatism and pedagogic decisions upon adequacy, compliance and capability because of the precarious, insecure labour conditions prevalent in the lifelong learning sector.
Central to Dewey’s writing is the notion of a democratic education. Laurence Stott (1995:31) describes his philosophy thus:
“Surely Dewey was right that humankind is implicated in an organic-material world open to intelligent and creative scientific research.
I like the word ‘implicated’ in this quotation, particularly as it suggests that I must take responsibility for my contribution to the inculcation of new teachers in the lifelong learning sector.
Dewey has been both castigated and revered, often in the same breath, by those wishing to influence educational values at a political and philosophical level. A pivotal notion surrounds his argument for growth as an end in itself, rather than growth towards a pre-determined end. Human beings recreate beliefs, ideals, hopes, happiness, misery, and practices and when individuals in a social group eventually pass away, through education the social group continues (Dewey 1916:6). This suggests to me an emphasis on education as an imperative.
Education, defined by Dewey as transmission through communication, not only ensures continuity of existence, but existence itself. He argued strongly for experience to be favoured over instruction, in that whereas all genuine education derives from experience, not all experience is positive in the sense of being able to take an individual forward educationally. He was particularly interested in the nature of reflection, and the non-linear process of learning. Indeed for Dewey, reflection is about problem solving -the embodiment of learning as a holistic activity, taking into account the accumulated experiences of both parties.
“An experience is always what it is because of a transaction taking place between an individual and what, at the time, constitutes his environment, whether the latter consists of persons with whom he is talking about some topic or event, the subject talked about being also a part of the situation; or the toys with which he is playing; the book he is reading […..]; or the materials of an experiment he is performing.” (Dewey, 1938:43-44).
I return to Stott’s final words on Dewey’s influence in North America:
‘Dewey’s educational experiment-revolution designed to bring democracy to North America has not been successful: its humanistic promises lie unfulfilled, and classroom group activities can be even more oppressive and less growthful than superior class instruction. Education is at the crossroads’. (1995:32)
I find his conclusion troubling when viewed through the lens of the dominant discourses emanating from this coalition government.
Dewey, J. (1916) Democracy and Education. An introduction to the philosophy of education (1966 edn.), New York: Free Press.
Dewey, J. (1938) Experience and Education, New York: Collier Books. (Collier edition first published 1963)
Iredale, A. (2012) Down the rabbit-hole: Routinised Practices, Dewey and Teacher Training in the Lifelong Learning Sector, Journal of Higher Education, Skills and Work Based Learning, 2:1.
Stott, L (1995) ‘Dewey a Disaster?’ International Journal of Research & Method in Education, 18: 1, 27 — 33